Better Call Saul: Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reasons in “Amarillo”


Better Call Saul
is great when it comes to contrasts, especially when it comes to its two most significant characters (who are, incidentally, its two legacy characters from Breaking Bad). “Amarillo” depicts Jimmy McGill as a man trying to do the wrong thing, or at least the underhanded thing, and being pushed to do the right one by those closest to him. It also shows Mike Ehrmantraut as a man trying to do the right thing, in the right way, and being pushed toward crime and the seedier side of the place he now calls home because of those closest to him.

We know that Jimmy tends toward the con, toward misdirection and toward the razzle dazzle. He has a well-established “ends justify the means” perspective, so when we see him pay off a bus driver from a local Sandpiper facility in Texas (with a glorious opening shot of our hero dressed in white, framed against the side of a building with the Lone Star State’s flag painted on it), it’s par for the course. There’s something intoxicating for Jimmy (and the audience for that matter) about the way he works his magic on that bus full of seniors.

There’s obviously something a little shady about it. Even apart from the bribe, Jimmy’s “send your nephew to talk to the manager” routine comes off as manipulative. But he’s so damn good at it! If there’s one thing viewers love and admire, it’s people who excel at what they do, and Jimmy is a more-than-talented client outreach specialist.

At some point, it becomes unfair to keep comparing Better Call Saul to Breaking Bad, but it’s hard not to see the parallels between Walter White and Jimmy McGill here. I’m not suggesting that there’s the same sort of pride or evil lurking within Jimmy that stewed within Walter as he slowly let Heisenberg out of his cage. But Walter and Jimmy are both very good at something–making meth and talking your way out of anything respectively–and that makes each of them loathe to give up plying their trade, even when the rules make continuing a dangerous proposition. Both of them know where their talents lie and what brought them to the dance, and each of them is unhappy, if not out-and-out afraid, of the idea that letting go would risk them ending up back where they started.

 

"You Texans like guns, right?"

 

Besides, when it comes to Jimmy’s situation in “Amarillo,” what’s the harm, right? It might not be totally above board to toe the line between following up on an individual mailer and soliciting a bus full of older folks, but Jimmy’s not taking advantage of these people. He’s trying to help them! Sure, he’s helping himself in the process, but there’s no real victim here.

Then, we run into Chuck, sitting across the table from his brother and pouring cold water on Clifford and Jimmy’s good news about the successful client outreach efforts. It’s a wonderful scene, made all the better by way that Howard Hamlin and Clifford Main both realize this is a family feud spilling over into the boardroom and make every effort to stay neutral, diplomatic, and supportive of both sides in the argument.

And it’s a hell of an argument! In Game of Thrones, Tyrion Lannister once described his own sibling as more than capable of using true feelings to motivate something false. In that vein, part of what makes Chuck’s admonition so interesting is that he’s 100% right about the concerns he expresses with respect to Jimmy’s outreach efforts, but it’s not exactly for the right reasons. The elder McGill brother isn’t wrong when he points out that any questions about the way their legal team obtained these clients, especially when it comes to seniors, leaves them vulnerable in a way that could torpedo the case. And he’s also not wrong to be suspicious of Jimmy wrangling 20+ clients while following up on a single mail-in response, particularly given what he knows about Jimmy’s past behavior and what he (rightfully) suspects about his brother’s current behavior.

What Jimmy did was risky and arguably foolish. And Chuck rightfully points that out, but coming from him it feels petty. Chuck has made it more than clear that even if his feelings are bound up with his own sense of pride in his work and accomplishments, he can’t shake the skeptical, dismissive view of his brother.

 

"I mean, come on! Jimmy doesn't even have a tie clip!"

 

Chuck may very well be legitimately and earnestly concerned that Jimmy is going to poison this whole deal. Maybe Chuck even thinks that given Jimmy’s financial stake in the outcome, he’s saving his brother from himself on that front. But it also can’t help but appear as though Chuck is simply trying to just knock the brother he doesn’t believe in down a peg, to try to show Jimmy that he doesn’t belong here. The contrast between those two elements of Chuck’s concerns–asking the right questions but for the wrong reasons, with so much bad blood in the background–makes it an endlessly fascinating little scene.

Jimmy, of course, uses the same skills on his fellow attorneys that he did with those seniors. He comes up with a plausible story, sells it to the assembled with little trouble, and despite the uncomfortable air between Chuck and Jimmy, manages to shut his brother up. But Chuck is remains unconvinced, and so is the only other person in that room who knows Jimmy well enough to smell his B.S.

In contrast to the last time the two of them were in the boardroom together, this time, Kim moves away from Jimmy’s advances under the table. Even if she doesn’t say it, the gesture is motivated by the fact that she agrees with Chuck. And as sorry as I am to go back to the well of Breaking Bad, it makes me worry that she’ll receive the same kind of reaction that Skyler did.

Without delving into the thorny issues of sexism, at base, people don’t like to see their protagonists thwarted. Jimmy is the main character of Better Call Saul. We see the show from his perspective, and that means that, consciously or unconsciously, we’re psychologically predisposed to be on his side. Even if in the back of our minds we can acknowledge the choices he makes as morally questionable, we’re geared to be on his side. Storytelling is designed to make the audience sympathetic to the person at the center of the story. That creates a risk that someone like Chuck, with admittedly sketchy motives, comes off worse despite the legitimacy of his concerns, and that someone like Kim will be seen as something audiences like even less — a scold.

 

Though hopefully we're not building up to an "I fucked Chuck" moment.

 

Kim has more or less replaced Chuck as the cricket on Jimmy McGill’s shoulder, as the person in his life who keeps him aspiring to be better and do better. Chuck’s admonition in the HHM boardroom doesn’t move Jimmy; it just gives him cause to strike back. But Kim’s response causes Jimmy to interrupt the meeting and emphasize that yes, in fact, all of his client outreach will be beyond reproach.

And when we see Kim push back against Jimmy after the meeting, she offers a damn good reason for why she shared Chuck’s skepticism. She put her neck out for Jimmy. He is, if not an outright nobody, than at least a lowly public defender who would have otherwise had to spend years in the pit before he had a chance to so much as sniff a partner-track job like the one Kim finagled for him. She put herself out there for Jimmy, with her boss, with her colleagues, and with her own reputation and prospects at stake. She’s absolutely right when she says that everything Jimmy does at his job reflects on her and her judgment, and that Jimmy doesn’t just have himself to worry about when he’s scheming and flimflamming his way into more clients.

There it is. Suddenly that incredibly amusing, downright charming scene with Jimmy on the bus seems a little more sinister, a little less harmless. While adding more wronged individuals to the class seems like a good thing on the surface, if it’s done in a way that doesn’t pass muster, it could mess up a good portion of the case and leave the HHM/Davis & Main team playing from behind when trying to pursue justice for these people. And things go wrong, if Jimmy is chastised for stepping outside the lines, it could also screw over the one person who stood up for him and put him in a position to have a seat at the table, the person whom he seems to love.

But what’s great is that the show depicts almost the exact opposite scenario with Mike. Mike is trying to stay on the straight and narrow. He’s hoping to do right by his son, by his daughter-in-law, and by his granddaughter, and that, ironically, pushes him to use his skills and abilities in a way that he’s not otherwise inclined to — to help criminals. Jimmy is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, and Mike is doing the wrong thing for the right ones.

What’s so striking about Mike’s choices is that he knows he’s being taken for a ride. When Stacey left a pregnant pause after confessing her money troubles to Mike back in Season 1, it was a nod toward the idea that Stacey was hoping for financial support. But there was enough ambiguity as to whether or not she really meant it, whether she was specifically trying to guilt Mike into propping her up, or rather just venting her anxieties to a sympathetic ear without any ulterior motives.

 

In almost any screengrab of Mike, his expression says he's tired of someone's crap.

 

But that wiggle room goes out the window almost entirely in “Amarillo” with the phantom bullets. The question becomes whether Stacey is deliberately and intentionally playing on Mike’s guilt, or whether it’s merely something subconscious. But those mystery shootings, not to mention the token resistance she puts up to Mike’s suggestion that she and Kaylee come live with him, suggest the former rather than the latter.

That makes Mike seem noble even as he slowly but surely starts heading down a path that we know will lead him to doing “big time jobs for big time pay.” Mike doesn’t want to be a criminal, at least not at a lethal level. What’s more, he knows he’s being taken advantage of in some sense, that, at a minimum, Stacey isn’t being straightforward with him and asking for help directly, but instead is laying on guilt trips and making up stories to get him to intervene, with the knowledge that he’s too broken up about his role in what happened to Matty to resist. Consequently, Mike compromises some of his principles. He steps back into a world he wanted to avoid, all in an effort to do the right thing.

Nobility comes less naturally to Jimmy than it does to Mike. But even if it takes a good amount of poking and prodding, he too tries to do the right thing. It’s heartening to see Jimmy using his creativity to succeed within the rules rather than to find clever ways to get around them. Again, his idea of a targeted commercial, based on his intimate knowledge and diligence about the schedules of the folks at Sandpiper, is fairly genius and perceptive on Jimmy’s part.

When we see him constructing the commercial, it shows his innate understanding of human nature, of how to affect and have an impact on a given target audience. The fact that he’s channeling those gifts into something legitimate, that he’s succeeding even when boxed in by the rules, is an encouraging sign. By the same token, it’s hard not to feel proud for him when Kim watches the commercial Jimmy made with the help of a pair of college students, and walks away impressed. She is, after all, the big reason why he’s trying this out rather than continuing his less-savory ways of finding clients, so her approval is more than meaningful to him.

 

Jimmy's aspiring filmmaker acquaintance looks vaguely like J.J. Abrams, and I can't decide whether or not that's intentional.

 

It’s also heartening to see him try to work his magic on the phone system at Davis & Main, just like he did when he was sequestered in the back room of the nail salon, especially as the results of his work roll in. There’s such a great bit of tension in the air in those moments where we wait to see whether Jimmy’s ad-buying scheme is going to work. His frantic dissection of the game plan with his subordinate conveys how anxious he is about the whole thing, how much is riding on this play for him. That makes the moments where the phones start lighting up, where it all falls into place, that much more exciting, for Jimmy and for the audience.

But that excitement is short-lived. Even when Jimmy’s doing right; he’s doing it wrong. He doesn’t run the ad by Clifford Main. He thinks about it. He comes close. But at the end of the day, he just can’t face the risk of failure or rejection. He can’t face the possibility that he has this brilliant thing he put his heart and soul into, and that someone could tell him no. That’s Jimmy’s game — do whatever you think needs doing, and bet on the fact that the results will justify whatever methods you used to get there.

The problem is that Jimmy isn’t just betting on himself here. He’s gambling with Kim’s reputation as well, with his brother’s I-Told-You-So’s in waiting, with whatever ethical rules for attorney advertising he may or may not have paid particularly close attention to when making the ad that, it bears repeating, could jeopardize the case as a whole. Jimmy is trying. He is trying so hard, in the best way he knows how, to both keep things above board and also fulfill the goals he set for himself. That’s why he’s sympathetic but also complicated.

And yet even as he tries in earnest, there’s a piece of Slippin’ Jimmy still left in the younger McGill brother, a part of him that thinks the best way to show Kim and Chuck that he’s worthy of their love and respect is to simply succeed. In his mind, the ends will invariably justify the means. The tragedy is if that effort, motivated by a desire to show those close to him what he’s made of, is what drives them from him, and turns him into the relatively scruple-free huckster we come to know down the road. Only time will tell.


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